In busy newsrooms full of large characters, journalist Alan Cameron, who has died aged 61, stood out as a towering, wild-haired figure in trademark loud shirt, an enthralling raconteur, and a steady hand in the febrile world of newspaper production.
While regular newspaper readers often recognise reporters and columnists from their picture by-lines, Alan’s 40 years in journalism was largely spent behind the scenes with the crucial background teams of sub-editors, page designers and headline writers.
Although anonymous to readers, in the many newsrooms in which he worked Alan was a central figure with razor sharp wit, wisdom and a genuine interest in people that saw him make friends in newspapers from Aberdeen to London via Edinburgh, Oslo and Yorkshire.
Born at home in Blairdardie, Glasgow, Alan was the fourth and final child to Mary and John (Jackie), an inspector of precision instruments at optical engineers Barr and Stroud. The couple infused in their children a love of reading and writing; throughout his life Alan poured his thoughts into countless diaries while his purchases of well-thumbed books kept many second-hand bookshops afloat.
School days were spent at St Aloysius College in Glasgow, followed by Edinburgh University to study English and Classical Literature and summer holidays spent working for a newspaper in Gibraltar.
A gentle soul, friends were often surprised to find he immersed himself in the university’s boxing club.
Alan went on to dabble with various jobs, but newspapers were his first interest and in 1987 he moved to Preston to study journalism and then join the Newton and Golborne News as a reporter.
The late Eighties was a feverish time for newspapers: oblivious to the changes the internet would soon bring, there were high stakes circulation wars, new titles launched and closed again within months.
In smoke-filled newsrooms, the clatter of typewriter keys was replaced by the gentle tap of computer keyboards, and traditional jobs – copy boys, copytakers, readers, librarians, secretaries and caseroom staff – disappeared.
It brought fresh demand for subs who could handle this new world of production and Alan’s sharp eye for detail saw him shift from reporter to sub-editor working at papers in Chester, Yorkshire and the Aberdeen Evening Express.
A short sojourn as communications manager for Railtrack in York confirmed his forte was newspapers and in 1995 he joined the Edinburgh Evening News as deputy features editor and then chief sub-editor.
Evening newspapers at the time made heavy demands on staff with 6am starts, rolling deadlines and pressure to fill ‘overnight’ pages which meant a day shift often stretched well into evening.
It required special characters who could absorb the pressure, and many were grateful for Alan’s flair for bringing levity in times of high stress.
Alan also possessed an admirable knack for making friends and finding himself in obscure situations. One evening in an Edinburgh pub led to him becoming unofficial landlord to Zimbabwean band, the Bhundu Boys, who had arrived in the city for a series of gigs with nowhere to stay. Alan’s flat became their temporary ‘home’.
Another post-shift drink in Edinburgh journalists’ regular hostelry, the Jinglin’ Geordie in Fleshmarket Close, led to a bizarre encounter with Kylie Minogue. The star bought him a pint of Guinness and ignited a story that would be retold – and playfully embellished – for years to come.
Many of Alan’s tales involved comedic train and plane journeys in which he would somehow fall in with groups of strippers, football fans or nuns, miss vital connections and end up in another chaotic situation or even country.
One particularly bizarre journey was spent on the London Underground with a toy chicken bought for some inexplicable reason during his lunchbreak squawking loudly from his backpack with every rattle over the tracks, bringing odd looks from fellow passengers and much cringing from Alan.
He regaled these tales with a twinkling eye and the natural born raconteur’s fine attention to quirky detail that left listeners enthralled.
Amid the laughs, Alan had a serious love affair with Greece which spanned almost all his life. It was, he said, a place he felt he belonged.
Greece, however, was less convinced. A spell in Corfu in the early 1980s as an English language teacher ended with the sack and, he’d later claim, a generation of Corfiot people with distinct Scottish phrases in their vocabulary.
In Athens, he was wrongly arrested and incarcerated in a small cell overnight after being mistaken for a murderer.
Even a near miss when he survived a sinking boat off Pylos failed to dampen his love for the country. Having undergone surgery for cancer last spring, Alan made what was a final pilgrimage to Zakynthos to pay respects at a memorial cairn for his close friend, former Edinburgh Evening News entertainment editor and Forth FM presenter, Colin Somerville.
Alan left Edinburgh in 2000 to become sub-editor and later assistant editor on the Yorkshire Evening Post, overseeing all aspects of the newspaper’s production.
Journalists, battered by decades of change – which Alan challenged in various roles within newsroom NUJ chapels – became ‘content creators’ wrestling with digital news as well as traditional print editions.
Alan again adapted, but regional papers required a fraction of the staff. He left for Norway to work for Upstream Oslo, which specialises in publications for the oil and gas industry. His beloved Chelsea boots’ lack of grip on icy Oslo pavements led to many more tales of mishaps and near misses.
He had recently relocated to the company's London office when he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.
Alan’s home for many years was in his beloved Bingley in West Yorkshire, where his garden stretched to the river’s edge and the boat he kept was named ‘Cirrhosis of the River’.
His fondness for Bingley was such that he chose it as his last resting place, stipulating a spot as close to the river as possible.
Having endured gruelling cancer treatment, Alan fell ill in mid-November, a setback he treated with typical sanguinity. A ‘thumbs up’ photograph and claim that all was “Well. Ish.” was among his last Facebook posts.
His many friends will remember his loyalty, knack for telling a story often accompanied by roaring laugh, a roll-up and a pint of Guinness, his intellect, love of music and as a fine newspaperman.
Alan is survived by his daughters from two marriages, Sally and Rose, his sisters Moira and Anne, and brother John.
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